College Kids Aren't the Only Ones Demanding 'Safe Spaces'

The much-ridiculed fear of ideas on campuses is just a parody of mainstream political discourse in America

Some students at the University of Kansas recently became upset about pro-Donald Trump chalkings that appeared on campus. Credit: Mike Yoder/The Lawrence Journal-World/AP

Donald Trump got creamed in the Wisconsin primary last night, but he's still finding ways to dominate the news. His latest trick has been to transform himself into the modern-day bogey man or El Coco, the monster who comes in the night for your kids. Well, your college-age kids.

Trump's name is at the center of a rash of bizarre stories on campuses across America, the most recent being the universities of Kansas and Michigan-Ann Arbor. Students have been waking up to find "Trump '16" messages in chalk scrawled on sidewalks, sometimes alongside other messages (like "Build the Wall" or "Stop Islam").

At each stop, students have complained to administrators that Trump's very name makes them feel unsafe. In Michigan, students actually called the police. Just today at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a member of student government reportedly has been asked to resign for a pro-Trump chalking. To be fair, the chalking in question did include a drawing of the notorious red "Make America Great Again" hat, making it especially horrifying.

The effect of all of this will probably be to make Donald Trump the official face of the "safe space" controversy, a distinction he'll of course wear as a badge of honor. He may even push to have the trigger warning renamed the Trump warning.

The chalking story began at Emory University in Georgia. A group of students there reportedly went berserk after some anonymous person scrawled "Trump '16" on a sidewalk in the wee hours of March 21st.

A student coalition quickly coalesced in protest, and soon confronted university President James Wagner. A joint letter was then composed by protesting groups, explaining that the chalk messages had created "an environment in which many students no longer feel safe and welcome."

Reporters hot on the scent of lively copy (any "safe space" story is a guaranteed hit-generator) immediately descended on the campus, where they extracted quotes from students like, "I legitimately feared for my life," "Some of us expected shootings," and "We are in pain."

These stories have the same arc every time. First there's the core news report, an often sarcastically told horror story of kids terrorized by chalk (or chat-room messages, or mascot costumes, or whatever) while living lives of enviable, sexually fulfilling leisure on gorgeous campuses.

Next comes the avalanche of op-ed pieces ridiculing the students. The response is usually brutal on both ends of the spectrum. When the Emory story spread to Kansas, Town Hall ran with the following headline: "Trump Chalkings Appear at University of Kansas: Delicate Snowflakes Complain."

Bill Maher's take was a big laugh line in-studio in L.A. "I so badly want to drop-kick these kids into a place where there is actual pain and suffering," he quipped.

Larry Wilmore's The Nightly Show also did an extended routine about the Emory incident. Wilmore was careful to note that some campus controversies are more genuinely disturbing, like the like the time someone scrawled "No N----rs" in a Connecticut College bathroom (Wilmore joked this was the original title for Friends). But he chuckled about Emory students panicking over a campaign slogan, interviewing mock students on location.

"I had no idea I went to school with people who had different opinions than me," moaned one. "It is terrifying."

These campus safe space controversies have a lot of older people freaked out. They're often covered in the style of the classic Time/Newsweek "What's Up With Your Inscrutable Messed-Up Teenager?" stories that used to work as cover features for nervous parents sitting in doctors' waiting rooms. (Time's spooky "Secrets of the Teen Brain" cover remains a favorite of this genre.) The usual subtext is, "What's wrong with teenagers these days, and why are they such wusses?"

Only in a few places (South Park's hilarious musical take is an example) has anyone tried to draw any connection between what's going on in schools, and the voraciously media-addicted culture of older Americans who with each passing year are themselves becoming more paranoid and incapable of dealing with opinions different from their own.

There's plenty of it on the liberal side. But conservatives who get hysterical about the "delicate snowflakes" on campus should take a look at their own media-consumption habits. It's hard to imagine anything funnier than a 70-year-old who watches 90 hours of Fox News a week and then rails against college kids who are afraid of new ideas.

But it's not just Fox viewers. Most of the cable TV news industry is just a series of safe spaces. There are conservative channels and liberal channels, all of them huge seas of more or less unanimous opinion. Viewers tune in, suckle their thumbs, and wait to have their own opinions vomited back at them.

The commercial formula at the all-liberals-suck channel is the same as the one at the all-Republicans-are-boneheads channel. People in this country tend to follow politics in the same way they follow sports teams. They don't think, they root.

The campus safe space movement is often derided as evidence of a rise of a newly censorious political left, a movement that's ideological in character. And who knows, maybe that's true. I don't spend enough time on campuses to know.

But the safe space movement among the somewhat older members of the commercial media has virtually nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with money.

The political punditry business is all about riling up an ad-consuming, subscription-buying demographic. We're paid by the eyeball, and you don't attract eyes by sticking fingers in them. So opinion-makers on both sides quickly learn to stay in their lanes.

If your job is throwing meat to wingers, you're not going to suddenly start admitting Mexicans are people or criticizing the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Ironically, Trump is one of the few public figures from the conservative camp who's thrived after thumbing his nose at red-team taboos. As amazing as it is that he survives after making comments about Megyn Kelly's wherever or sneering at John McCain for being captured in war, the fact that some of his seemingly more harmless asides haven't sunk him is just as notable.

You won't find many right-wing pundits or pols with jobs to protect who'd be willing to make even the mildly approving (and obviously accurate) comments about the "good work" that Planned Parenthood has done for "millions of women" that Trump has made this campaign season. Of course Trump is rich in addition to being insane, so he's exempt from the usual professional pressures.

Democratic politics is the same minefield of litmus tests and taboos that Republican politics is, with the caveat that we're supposed to pretend it isn't. Even people who've dedicated their lives to liberal causes quickly learn that any blemish in their belief systems can be costly.

So those that have non-conforming beliefs, like free-speech icon Nat Hentoff (who somewhat reluctantly came out as pro-life in the Nineties), tend not to be very loud about their idiosyncrasies, hoping it doesn't hurt them professionally too much.

The few exceptions are people like Bill Maher, who have big enough and secure enough audiences that they can afford to openly challenge a few blue-team bugaboos and keep working.

Still, when Maher came out with off-color jokes and comments about Islam, blue-team America went nuts, organizing campaigns to keep him off campuses and devolving at times into humorously genuine despair over his continued existence. It was very nearly an existential crisis. He's liberal, but I don't agree with absolutely everything that he says! How will I cope? A plaintive Huffington Post piece asking how to "solve a problem like Bill Maher" is typical of the phenomenon.

One would think the solution to a Bill Maher problem, if you think you have one, is to not watch him, but that doesn't work. The modern American media consumer has a genuine mania for orthodoxy. We've habituated readers and viewers not just to expect content that caters to all their opinions down the line, but also to expect and demand a completely binary representation of the political landscape: blue and red, Us and Them.

Consumers on both sides don't like pundits whose views are all over the place. They want white hats and black hats, allies and enemies, even though in real life most people are not wholly one thing or another. And when one of the performers steps off-script, it's a "problem."

To me this is consumerism, not political correctness. Capitalism in this country has become so awesomely efficient at target-scratching every conceivable consumer itch that it's raised a generation of people with no tolerance for discomfort, particularly the intellectual kind.

There are so many products available now that customers have learned to demand that every single purchase choice they make be perfectly satisfying. People want nacho chips that taste awesome every time, and they want pundits who agree with them every time. They don't want to fork over time or money to be told they're wrong or uninformed any more than they want to eat a salad.

The ultimate irony is in Donald Trump being cast as some kind of strong, heroic invader of safe spaces. Trump is exactly the thin-skinned bundle of nerves that most media consumers are (and Trump is nothing if not a media addict). If there's ever been a person who couldn't handle a challenge and demanded that reality be bent to his worldview, it's Trump. His whole campaign is a demand for a safe space. What a joke this story is, all around.